In Vancouver, Canada, a breakthrough achievement for the famously global warming fuelling aviation industry has just been witnessed, the debut flight of an all-electric plane. The engine was created by Seattle firm Magnix, and the plane outfitted and operated in conjunction with Harbour Air, a Canadian airline mostly focusing on ferrying tourists to Canada’s winter slopes and island resorts.
With a flight lasting just a humble fifteen minutes, this was still an epoch-opening moment due to its nature as a successful proof of concept; that it is possible to get in the air without emitting damaging carbon emissions.
An old favorite of civil aviation, the electric plane itself, is anything but a breakthrough in advanced technology. In fact, it’s over 50 years old, a 1962 de Haviland Beaver seaplane, to be precise, which has been retrofitted with Magnix’s inventive electric engine.
It’s a small plane, with capacity for just six passengers, so it doesn’t require the kind of engine power of a commercial jet. Still, even so, the electric engine was more than enough for the job, with the pilot, Greg McDougal (who also doubles as founder and chief executive of Harbour Air) claiming he actually had to ease up on the power over his regular fuel.
McDougal believes this could be a real boost for civil aviation, and a money saver too, since electric engines are both more economical on energy costs than conventional aviation fuel, as well as requiring much less maintenance, thus saving on the cost of regular repairs.
The limitations of the electric engine’s battery life mean that long haul flights are going to be out of the question for the foreseeable future, the life of the lithium battery giving the e-plane a range of about 100 miles (or 160 kilometers). But this is a perfect range for the kind of short-haul, internal flights which Harbour Air specializes in.
Civil aviation, even in the global warming era, is a growth area with the number of flights nearly doubling from 1998 to 2017, rising to almost 4 billion a year and short-haul flights are amongst the most carbon inefficient ways to travel (far more than long haul and particularly broken up long haul flights).
Even the Canadian government is looking on approvingly, the transport minister Marc Garneau hopeful, if not optimistic, that the e-engine could transform the transport infrastructure of Canada just in time to meet decarbonization targets.
And we’re going to need this technology to take off if we’re going to reduce the 895 billion tonnes of carbon emissions produced every year by global aviation. This is 2% of the world’s emissions, and 12% of all transport emissions, but its effects are heightened by where they are emitted, with the NOX emissions also a contributor to global warming (albeit only in the short term and thus hyper-localized).
Not only that, but recent research suggests that planes’ contrails (long a source of controversy amongst conspiracy theorists) are, in fact, even more damaging than their carbon emissions since they trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.
But there’s still a way to go yet before the electric engine overtakes conventional fuel. For one thing, more tests will need to be done to prove that Magnix’s engine is reliable and safe over time.
Even once this is done to the creator’s satisfaction, it will then need approval from aviation regulators before it can enter into use on a commercial rather than an experimental scale. All in all, it could be at least another two years before Greg McDougal can fulfill his aim of outfitted all 40 of his little fleet of seaplanes with e-engines.
In this, he will hopefully see his planes joining the likes of shipping, trains (which are already electrified over most of Europe and many East Asian countries), and increasingly cars in taking to the carbon-neutral electric age. And with global aviation only set to increase and demanding carbon cuts to be met by 2050, the sooner we start that journey, the better.
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